Hockey’s black eye

Celebrating violence even as it condemns it, the NHL has long sent mixed signals to its players and fans about what crosses the line

By Shira Springer
Globe Staff / June 8, 2011

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A quick search on the NHL’s official website reveals video of brawls and big hits. The best of the best, the most bone-jarring, the bloodiest find their way into packages promoting “Hits of the Year’’ and “Tough Guys.’’

Many of the clips earn playing time on NHL arena jumbotrons as in-game entertainment. The brawls and big hits whip crowds into a screaming, glass-banging frenzy. That type of violence has long been a part of the NHL.

But the hit that knocked out Bruins right wing Nathan Horton in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final produced a collective gasp Monday night at TD Garden. Following a blindside headshot from Canucks defenseman Aaron Rome, Horton lay motionless with his right arm in the air. He left the ice on a stretcher and spent the night at Massachusetts General Hospital. He was released yesterday with a severe concussion and is recuperating at home.

The hit on Horton and its punishment raised questions about violence in the sport, about whether the NHL can leave some of the fights and bone-jarring hits behind. Although less violent than in the past, than in the days of the Big Bad Bruins, the NHL entertains and attracts fans as much with its fast, skilled players as with physical play that sometimes crosses the line.

Rome’s hit crossed that line, according to the NHL, and the season is over for both players. The league suspended Rome for four games, covering the remainder of the series. Horton will miss the remainder of the series. Mike Murphy, senior vice president of NHL operations, based the punishment on the seriousness of Horton’s injury and because Rome delivered a late hit.

“Hockey is a violent game played by violent people,’’ said former Bruin Derek Sanderson. “If you don’t like that, watch tennis. People watch for the hits. The courage of the players is what attracts people to the game and what separates hockey. Hockey is not for everybody. Without the violence, the toughness, the physicality, it would lose its edge and its mystique.”

Sanderson, other former and current players, agents, and league officials strenuously condemn head-hunting or any type of play that would intentionally injure an opponent, especially with the increasing awareness of the effects of concussions. But the inconsistency of punishment meted out by the NHL — Canucks forward Alex Burrows bit Bruin Patrice Bergeron’s finger in Game 1 but he was not suspended — sends mixed messages about what crosses the line.

Canucks coach Alain Vigneault didn’t believe the hit deserved a four-game suspension, although former Bruin Brad Park said, “It should have been 15,’’ in part because it occurred in the Stanley Cup Final and a lengthier suspension would have sent a strong, clear message.

Mixed signals might result from the NHL trying to preserve the game’s intensity and mystique, all elements of its fan base and its star players.

“Ultimately, they’re in the entertainment business,’’ said agent Kent Hughes. “Hockey is more than a sport of violence, but there’s a component of it that’s very physical and can lead to dangerous outcomes. Things have to be done. The league cannot afford to lose players, period. They certainly cannot afford their superstars. Having players like [Pittsburgh Penguins star] Sidney Crosby potentially compromise their careers, that’s going to kill the league.’’

And the league may be surprised to find a majority of fans on the side of tougher legislation against violent play. There will always be bloodthirsty fans, but true fans appreciate good, clean hits.

“I like the violence when it’s clean,’’ said Justin Aucoin of Brookline, co-owner and writer of the Bruins fan blog “Days of Y’Orr.’’ “I like the hard hits. [Johnny] Boychuk can do a nice clean, old-school hip check. I like the fights. I like watching [Bruin] Shawn Thornton drop the gloves when it’s appropriate and when sticking up for a teammate. That’s part of the core and the identity of the game. But the blindside hits and the late hits need to get wiped out.’’

And Aucoin would find Thornton, who led the Bruins with 122 penalty minutes in the regular season, in agreement. After Game 3, Thornton talked about the hit on Horton becoming “the culture of the game’’ and said “it has to get out of the game.’’

To change the culture, the players must take an active role in finding a solution. Sanderson and Park noted how today’s young hockey players don’t learn to hit properly, how, ironically, wearing helmets at a young age has made them more reckless in how they play and hit.

“The NHL wants to leave injuries behind,’’ said agent Matt Keator. “The key is for the players’ association and the NHL to work together and make sure there’s safety in the workplace.

“There’s a fine line between clean physical play and dirtiness and cheap shots. That’s where there’s education going on for players to respect each other. There’s an educating that has to go on at all levels that we have to get rid of plays that put players in danger. The hits that have happened are throwing a lot of awareness out there.’’

A frighteningly violent hit in a Stanley Cup Final that appears, at times, close to spinning out of control might be just the awareness the NHL needs to take more meaningful action.

Shira Springer can be reached at

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